Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
What is your epistemic framework? Put another way: How to do you decide what counts as knowledge and by what means do you learn what you learn? In a world in which we are bombarded every moment by countless sources of so-called “facts” and “truths,” we do well to think about how to navigate the flood of information and misinformation that, if left unchecked, threatens to utterly baffle and bewilder us.
As I write this, the internet is turning 50 years old. It was on October 29, 1969, that one computer first sent a message to another computer in a different location. That momentous event opened a whole new world of communication and information-sharing. It ushered in an era of unprecedented possibilities for networking and connectivity. And, at the same time, it created a previously unimagined array of potential problems and ethical dilemmas, many of which we confront as daily realities in the world in which we now live.
There is – and there has been and there will continue to be – concern about the role the internet and social media plat-forms play in spreading what passes as knowledge these days. This past week, in fact, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill, in part to account for the role his company plays in perpetuating news that is not news at all.
The problem is not unique to Facebook, though Facebook, with its staggering number of users around the world, has a uniquely prominent role in shaping the flow of information and the development of what we might think is knowledge. We can get a better sense of the problem when we acknowledge that Facebook exists to make money – and not necessarily to inform anyone about anything, and that they make more money by getting more people to use their services, and that they get more people to use their services by using algorithms that trend toward what is sensational in whatever ways will get more people to click and view more content so they can sell more advertising. And the content may or may not have any basis in reality. Indeed the nature of the content is entirely beside the point. Let’s be clear: all social media platforms ultimately exist to make money, not to share either accurate or full accounts of what is happening in the world.
But then money has always driven media that presume to convey news to the general public. How far can you get into a newscast before you see a commercial for this or for that? Given that ad sales sustain media outlets, why should we be surprised that the evening news runs coverage of car crashes and house fires? They do it partly because those stories affect viewers on a variety of levels including physiological; when human beings view such stimulating material, our brains release neurotransmitters associated with attention and arousal and keep us coming back for more. But other stories that may have more relevance and import get left out and what we think we know about the world is skewed by decisions made in the interest of generating financial gain for people who have enough wealth to reap the benefits.
At the end of the day, media corporations are out to make money above all else, and they seem quite incapable of reasonable self-regulation. And our government has not found, nor does it look like our government will find a way to regulate how and what information is shared as news. So, unless we as individuals are intention-al about screening and balancing the news we receive, we are at the mercy of forces and sources that may well not have any interest in anything like a common purpose, or a collective good, or the reign of God that serves all people.
At some level, engaging the news thoughtfully is an act of faith or at least an act with faith implications.
As religious and/or spiritual people, do we have a special responsibility to think through what counts as knowledge and news?
How should the Bible play into our ways of knowing things? What about tradition? Should what the church has done through the years inform our decision-making today? Does our own personal life experience matter, the lessons we have learned through trial and error along the way? What role should reason serve in our discernment of what is true and what is not? Must we rely on statistics and “hard data,” or are “gut feelings” more meaningful in our determination of truth? How much stock should we put in what Aunt Mabel has to say about things? Thinking about how we know things can validate what we think we know – or not.
Sadly, we know that the Church has historically played an active role in the spread of misinformation and made lethal mistakes in interpreting such matters as, for example, the initiation and preservation of slavery and systemic racism, marginalization of women, perpetuation of poverty, discrimination against people in the LGBTQ+ community, and so on… And good church people have been willing for millennia to compromise their values and integrity for the sake of selfish and short-term gratification and self-glorification.
Especially as we head into the heat of this political season, I urge us to be thoughtful about what we allow to pass for news, how we come to know what we think we know, what sources feed us the information upon which we make decisions and shape how we see the world. We will do well to balance our exposure to what is called news, intentionally seeking out varied sources and making determinations based on our own thoughtful judgment.
For the good of our country and the sake of all of humanity, we cannot afford to just make stuff up or to accept lies as truths. There is far too much hanging in the balance.